A dozen anonymous women have filed a lawsuit against Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, claiming its policies have allowed for a hostile campus culture that has retaliated against women who’ve been victims of sexual violence and saying the university has investigated such claims with a slant in favor of those who’ve assaulted them.
The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, demands unspecified damages under seven claims. It describes sexual assaults and domestic violence against multiple students, as well as discrimination against a pregnant and breastfeeding student, during the past 21 years that were perpetuated through “the weaponization of the ‘Liberty Way,’” the school’s honor code.
The women either have been students, employees or attendees of Liberty programs. Five of them are from Virginia.
The incidents described in the lawsuit include four sexual assaults by student-athletes, one of whom temporarily was banned from campus and will be allowed to come back in 2022. Two of the women were employees who claim they experienced sexual harassment and assault from the same supervisor.
Many of the women who experienced or reported a sexual assault ended up facing consequences or investigation for drinking or having sexual conduct, both of which are forbidden under the Liberty Way, the lawsuit states.
One was offered counseling after a sexual assault, according to the lawsuit, which turned out to be a fine for drinking off campus. For most of the women who were assaulted, the accused assaulter never faced any consequences, the suit states.
In many cases, the lawsuit states, the women weren’t aware of how to file a Title IX complaint and follow those procedures. One woman was “a member of the Office of Student Conduct’s appeals board for … Title IX cases, and had first-hand knowledge of the University’s treatment of the victims of sexual assault.
“Specifically as a result of that knowledge, she made no report to the university,” the lawsuit states.
Another woman was emotionally and physically abused by a fiancé whose connections “made him appear ‘untouchable’” in regards to discipline at Liberty University. Another was threatened with expulsion when she became pregnant during a time when the university “had no specific policy regarding pregnancies,” then faced other hurdles related to her pregnancy that weren’t backed by policy.
The earliest incident was in 2000, when one of the plaintiffs attended a debate camp at Liberty at the age of 15 and stated Jesse Matthew Jr. — who later was convicted of murdering two college students in 2009 and 2014 — sexually assaulted her. Matthew was accused of rape by a Liberty student in 2002, but no one from the school contacted the plaintiff about that, according to the lawsuit.
After reporting the assault immediately to the Liberty University Police Department in 2000, the lawsuit states, she describes severe mismanagement of her case: being held for eight hours without food or drink, hearing one officer asking Matthew for an autograph because Matthew was a Liberty University football player at the time, being directed to “thoroughly wash her hands to destroy any DNA evidence and present her nails for inspection” and university police demanding she strip so the chief could take nude photographs of her for evidence.
The girl refused, and instead a woman coaching the debate team took the nude photos, one of which involved the girl bending over a desk and exposing herself, according to the lawsuit. She’s concerned those photos might have been “trafficked by the police,” the lawsuit states.
At the time, the lawsuit states, university police told the girl she could be expelled from the camp for wearing pants on campus, which was a violation of the Liberty Way then, and suggested Matthew approached her for sex because she was wearing pants. Officers refused to take her to the hospital and “threatened her that if she did not withdraw her claim, she would be charged criminally with filing a false report,” the suit states.
Jack Larkin, the Pennsylvania lawyer who filed the lawsuit, stated in it that multiple witnesses “who previously worked in the Office of Student Conduct came forward” to talk about the unfair way Liberty would investigate sexual misconduct and how it “took action across multiple levels of its hierarchy to punish women who reported sexual violence.”
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York would have jurisdiction over the claims since it provides online services to people in that jurisdiction, the lawsuit states. The first plaintiff lives on Long Island in New York.
In a statement Tuesday, Liberty called the lawsuit’s allegations “deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true.
“Many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years,” the statement reads.
The school stated it has an amnesty policy that encourages victim reports without looming discipline for sexual activity or drinking and a “fair process” for resolving sexual misconduct.
Though expected to take some time, Liberty University said it will be investigating the claims “to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true.”